Fans of all things Harry Potter have been anxiously awaiting FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM since they announced Harry Potter series creator J.K. Rowling herself was writing the script. Her involvement automatically, and in all ways, makes this new film series canon. Fans already know a lot about the lead character Newt Scamander, and the subject of his book, forwarded by Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, hence the origin of the film. This is an opportunity to create a new audience, some of whom haven’t even seen or read the Harry Potter books, as well as reinvigorate and expand interest among its loyal fandom. So, does this release weave a new spell of enchantment?

From the moment the recognizable Harry Potter theme plays in the opening moments of the film, FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM is truly magical from beginning to end, and should, beyond lovers of fantasy and magic, be uniquely appealing to animal lovers everywhere. Director David Yates, and the production design team once again headed by Harry Potter franchise’s Stuart Craig, set themselves to ambitious, inventive world building, with creatures, characters, and environments that fill this new storyline to overflowing. That’s is a good thing, given it must not only maintain audience interest though a film that is arguably 20 minutes too long, but with a total of five movies already announced, must foster longterm viewer commitment for a BEASTS franchise.

Of all metiers to feature of the many represented in the world of Harry Potter, I can’t imagine a more compelling and fun one than that of a Magizoologist. The imagined creatures are many and myriad, from invisible to kleptomaniacal, and all the way from tiny, crawling, insects to enormous, flying spectacles that seem half dragon, half serpent. They are all, to varying degrees, dangerous or able to wreak havoc. They propel the story forward, and are all under the watchful, loving eye of lead character Newt Scamander, played by Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne. He’s an interesting fellow. Zoologists and biologists who work with animals on a daily basis will recognize that “I prefer animals to people” personality Scamander shares with most of them. He’s shy, smart, committed, and clearly passionate about the beasts in his charge. He will defend and protect them with his life, and indeed that could be what the powers-that-be will ask of him. In other words, he’s a hero through and through, and he, the creatures, and what he will do out of love for them, are what keep the film together.

Scamander comes from England to Jazz Age New York, carrying a (of course, magical) suitcase that encases many magical animals, and the alternate space in which he works, studies, and cares for them. Immediately something gets loose. To recapture them, he enlists the aid of a “No-mag”, American muggle Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), as well as former Auror Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston of STEVE JOBS) and her mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), who are both witches. They encounter resistance and trouble from MACUSA, (the Magical Congress of the United States) some members of whom have questionable motives, as well as a NO-mag
anti-magic group headed by creepy woman running an orphanage named Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) who is abusing the odd kids living there. Making matters worse is a mysterious wizard named Grindelwald, who is corralling whatever dark forces he can use to benefit his nefarious plans.

If that plot sounds a bit thin, it is. But this first installment to the new franchise is focused largely on character development and world building, and it is those aspects of FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM that offer great fun, and exactly the sort of willing suspension of disbelief for which we often choose to sit in dark theaters. The action set pieces, overlong as some of them are, often involve magic creatures in eye-popping and artistic environments representing the wizard version of early 20th century New York. From the costume design (by multi-award winner Eileen Atwood) to the production design (as mentioned before, headed by Oscar-winner Stuart Craig, who worked on all seven Potter films), to Rowling’s dialogue, everything is built to draw you in, enthrall, and connect you to the action. Look, in particular, for the wondrous 1920s wizard-world version of the Cantina Scene of Star Wars fame. Strong plot points will have to wait for the next movie, but you’ll be ok with that, as you repeatedly bounce back and forth from smiling ear to ear to putting your jaw back into place.